Aki is the Ojibwe word for earth/land/ground.
I did not learn this word until I took Anishinaabe Language I and II as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota – Morris, a Native American-Serving Nontribal Institution and a former Native American Boarding School. Anishinaabe describes Tribal Nations (U.S.) or First Nations (Canada) that include the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Algonquin, Saulteaux, Nipissing, and Mississauga First Nations as well as some Oji-Cree and Metis. In addition, a translation of Anishinaabe can mean either “Original Man” or the “Good Humans.”
It would not be until much later that I understood what it meant for these communities to connect to and with land.
I grew up away from my tribal nation the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in Sault Ste. Marie. My family lived in the suburbs of Parma Heights outside of Cleveland, Ohio. In a place where Native peoples only represent 0.2 percent of the population according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it was hard to find and build community.
But I was fortunate to grow up around strong Anishinaabe kwe (Anishinaabe women); my mom, my aunts, and my grandma all inspired me to learn about my culture and shared with me what they knew about our culture while living away from our ancestral homelands [my extended family lived in Michigan, and learning about how Anishinaabe peoples view the land was not part of my upbringing because my family life was impacted by boarding schools].
Parma Heights offered great access to national parks, including the Cuyahoga National Park within a 45-minute drive from my home. I never thought much about it though. I spent a lot of time outdoors—merely because I liked sports, camping, and swimming—without paying attention to the land or environment surrounding me. In other words, I grew up taking it for granted. As I got older, I continued to run cross country and track in high school and in college. I ran through different landscapes each day, from concrete parkways to dirt roads. Yet my idea of land or environment remained as something I used for my benefit or self-care. I did not deeply consider how a relationship with land is reciprocal.
I returned to the land in college, through my connection to running. I participated in my university’s cross country and track team for three years, where we ran daily on Dakota homelands. While our American Indian Studies curriculum was strengthened around Anishinaabe language and culture, few classes existed for Dakota language and culture (when I was a student at least).
Yet soon I began to learn about land in a different way than just through my running. Once I started working in our Native American community’s medicine wheel garden after my first year of college, my relationship to and with the land began to change. Personally, I felt a little lost during this time. I did not know exactly what to do with my summer and, after having a difficult year academically, I also wanted to be closer to my parents. My mom encouraged me to absorb all I could about my culture, and working in the medicine wheel garden offered a way to do that. This is where I learned to understand how Indigenous foods can help address health disparities based off understandings rooted in Anishinaabe teachings. This is where I learned how to care for plants as relatives and how to cultivate a relationship of care with them.
This was not done by myself, as I worked with a friend who was teaching me at the time. This land-based experience represented both the informal and formal ways one can learn with the land and community in a non-extractive way. My time at the medicine wheel garden taught me to slow down, to care for living beings, and even to work through any mishaps that might happen, such as an infestation of squash bores.
When I think about the land now, it is bigger than myself. While I continue to run to support my mental and emotional health and to care for myself individually, I often think about how the land holds multiple meanings, memories, and teachings if you are willing to slow down and listen. One such meaning was learning how my people, the Ojibwe, view Aki and practice care for the earth. Learning Anishinaabe was integral as my perspective to and with the land changed.
I learned that the land is bigger than one person. More often than not, it is the community that shapes the land—and, in turn, it is the land that shapes the individual.
*Cover image: Group photo of all those that worked or collaborated with the Native American medicine wheel garden, myself included. Photo from Morris Healthy Eating Initiative Facebook Page.
[Cover image description: a group photo of twenty-four people standing next to eachother in front of a circular garden figure divided into quadrants traced on the soil and surrounded by grass and foilage.]